Spring may be tentative about its arrival this year, but racist sentiments seem to be popping up like stubborn, perverse flowers, fracturing the soil of post-racialism. No sooner did Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy end his shot at conservative stardom by explaining that his political philosophy included both distaste for government power and nostalgia for slavery than a new figure emerged to take his place.

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2010 file photo, Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling watches his team play in Los Angeles. The NBA is investigating a report of an audio recording in which a man purported to be Sterling makes racist remarks while speaking to his girlfriend. NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement Saturday, APril 26, 2014, that the league is in the process of authenticating the validity of the recording posted on TMZ's website. Bass called the comments In this 2010 photo, Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling watches his team play in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

In a recording first obtained by TMZ, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling chastised his then-girlfriend, V. Stiviano, who is herself of both African-American and Mexican descent, for bringing African-American guests to games, and posting photos of herself with people of color, including Magic Johnson, to her Instagram account. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” Sterling complains.

In a statement in response to the tape, Sterling suggested it might have been altered. Sterling is suing Stiviano, and implied that she might be trying to get revenge on him. But even if Stiviano set up the recording, and deliberately tried to provoke Sterling, his half of the conversation is disturbing. Sterling calls Stiviano a “mental case” for comparing anti-black animus and anti-Semitism, and threatens to break up with her if she does not behave.

The National Basketball Association is investigating Sterling and the authenticity of the tape. But as the investigation proceeds, the league–and those of us watching from the outside–should take into account not just whether Sterling is a private racist, but whether any African-American player (or player of any color, really) should have to work for him going forward.

In the initial response to Sterling’s remarks, there were some suggestions that the Clippers, who are in the middle of a playoff series with the Golden State Warriors, might walk off the parquet in protest. They chose to continue playing, though they came onto the floor yesterday afternoon with the team’s logo obscured. Many observers predicted that a Sterling-owned team would have trouble signing free agents in the future. Players including Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Celtics guard Jerry Bayless have said they would not play for the Clippers as long as Sterling remains at the top.That disgust is not confined to players, either. Warriors coach Mark Jackson said that he would not go work for Sterling. At least one agent has said that he would discourage his clients from signing with the Clippers in the future.

Sports franchise owners can be an awfully imperious bunch. In the NBA, the owners locked out the players in 2011: The players took substantial financial losses in the deal that resolved the standoff.  Sterling’s fellow owners may be appalled by his racism, but they might well share Sterling’s answer to a question he posed to Stiviano. “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?” Sterling says. “Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”

The Sterling tape comes at a moment when athletes at all levels of big-time sports are trying to change the answer to that, and to demand better in return for their contributions to their leagues. On the college level, students are challenging the core assumption that they are amateurs, even as some universities reap enormous profits from their play. Last Friday, Northwestern University football players cast their votes for or against forming a union, after a campaign that called attention to the medical bills and long-term health risks student-athletes often face. A trial that charges the NCAA with unfairly profiting from the licensing of its athletes’ images kicks off in June.

In the pros, both highly-paid male athletes, and the female contractors who support them, are demanding better for themselves and others. Cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, and the Cincinnati Bengals are suing over everything from wage theft, to sexual harassment, to exceptionally intrusive hygiene policies. In the NFL, politically active players including kicker Chris Kluwe, linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, and wide receiver Donté Stallworth have used their activism to challenge the culture of their own coaching staffs and locker rooms. LeBron James, who was quick to speak out against Sterling’s remarks, two years ago posed in a hoodie with his Miami Heat teammates, including Dwayne Wade, for a photo memorializing slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Whether the issue is amateurism or Florida’s racial climate, fair pay for cheerleaders or fair treatment of openly gay athletes and their straight allies, the last several years are a powerful reminder that paying superstars big money does not mean athletes cannot want better. As the NBA tries to figure out whether Donald Sterling deserves to remain an owner, and fans decide whether or not they can continue to give him their money, all of us should listen not just to the woman who dated Sterling, but the men who work for him. Sterling may have been able to buy an NBA team. But contempt for the people who work for him should never be included in that purchase price.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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